Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

Prep School

At a wilderness survival-skills course in Sydney, Australia, May 31, 2020 (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

Confession time: I’ve always been a bit of a prepper.

I really shouldn’t be broadcasting this, I know. Prepping — the hobby of preparing for societal breakdown by stocking up on insane amounts of Chunky Soup and Band-Aids and waterproof matches and hand-cranked emergency radios that you actually have no idea how to use — was until very recently seen as a fringe activity for either bored weirdos who dwell in desert RVs or rich weirdos who live in Silicon Valley.

Moreover, telling people you are a prepper breaks the most important rule of prepping, which is akin to the first and second rules from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club: You do not talk about prepping. If you share your prepping secrets with the world, after all, sooner or later the you-know-what will hit the fan and all sorts of unprepared friends and acquaintances and even frenemies who were making fun of you just the week before will sidle up with wide innocent Bambi eyes and ask to borrow “just a few of your Clorox wipes” or “just one segment of your last toilet-paper roll” or “just five or six of your guns.”

But hey, it’s 2020. At this point, we’ve faced a mysterious mutant virus, government-sponsored lockdowns, an invading swarm of murder hornets, and violent unrest across America. Who knows what’s coming next? An alien invasion? Cats 2? I hate to break it to you, but if you’re here with us in 2020 and you’re paying attention and you’re not prepping, you’re the weird one now.

While this year has offered a steady dose of low-level torture for calendar-loving social-schedule planners — unfortunately for me, I’m one of those, too — for preppers, it’s been a bit of a vindication. “For years, one of the most smirked-at subspecies in the technology ecosystem was that of the Silicon Valley Prepper,” wrote Nellie Bowles in the April 24 New York Times. But now, she notes, “the coders and founders long snickered at for stockpiling flour and toilet paper were absolutely right.” Prepping, in other words, has gone mainstream.

But here we must face the gigantic elephant in the stockpile room that is delicately trying to squeeze behind the piles of bulging bugout bags and knocking down an entire stack of garbanzo beans in the process: If you rely on things you must buy from a store, you can never really be prepped enough. Those cans of freeze-dried beef stroganoff you ordered might have an impressive shelf life of 25 years, but eventually they’re going to run out. As our old friend Yeats might put it, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and eventually you will eat all of your Spam.

To reach the true upper level of prepping — the luxury skybox of survival — one must learn to live off the land. One must know how to dress a deer and a turkey. One must know how to gut a fish. One must know which mushrooms, if consumed, will unceremoniously whisk you away from this earthly vale. One must know, like the magnificent Bear Grylls, how to extract hydration from camel poo. With this in mind, one must do what any reasonable aspiring hard-core survivalist would do in uncertain times: Sit back and turn on the TV.

Don’t laugh. I’ve learned a lot! Say what you will about the boob tube, but these days it presents a cornucopia of wild and crazy survivalist fare. There’s Naked and Afraid, a terrifying visual offering featuring people stripped of their clothing and tossed into jungles where all sorts of nightmarish things can latch onto their skin. There’s Man vs. Wild, with the aforementioned international treasure Bear Grylls. And then there’s my family’s current favorite in the booming television-survivalist genre, featuring an impressive cast of some of the hardest-core live-off-the-land heroes you will ever encounter: Alone.

“ALONE,” as the History Channel declares on its website, “is the most intense survival series on television.” Indeed. From the start of the show’s first season — which plopped ten people into the wilderness on Vancouver Island, allowed them limited supplies, isolated them from one another, and granted the longest-lasting participant a prize of half a million dollars — the show has continually morphed and upped the ante. The first season’s winner, Alan Kay, emerged victorious after spending 56 days in the southern Canadian wilderness. Now, in season seven, the winner of Alone must last at least 100 days — in the Arctic.

 Alone offers many lessons — among them, I have discovered that it is de rigueur for many survivalists to sincerely thank a captured fish for its life and service before bonking it on its head and scarfing it down for lunch. But one message resonates above all others: The winners of the show don’t share just certain physical skills. They share psychological traits as well.

Sure, they might be able to construct a cabin with a working fireplace and loft beds entirely out of stray pine needles in two days flat! They might be able to cure poisonous spider bites by whipping up a poultice made out of seaweed, good intentions, and fresh air! They can often build a full-sized fishing boat using nothing but a rusty hook, a dead snail, and an old washed-up buoy from the beach! But they also adjust their expectations beyond the temporary.

The winners of Alone aren’t, in other words, sitting around feverishly counting the days. They develop a wilderness lifestyle with the assumption they will be in it for the long haul — and because of this, they pull through. Deep, is it not?

“No,” you might be saying. “That is not deep at all. What are you suggesting, lady?” Okay, fine. Maybe I’m watching too much TV. But I’m right about the canned goods. You at least have to grant me that.

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